This article originally appeared on the Nob Hill Gazette
In September 1970, when Springfield, Missouri, had its own Woodstock-style music festival, Father Harry Schlitt gave the prayer at the two-day event. The festival drew criticism, and so did Schlitt for his role in it. A local Baptist association even issued a formal condemnation.
Schlitt had no regrets. He’s always gone his own way. “Everyone matters,” he says, “It’s all about building community.”
He has lived that mantra throughout his unique priesthood — a period in which his ability to connect to and care for all kinds of people and to minister to a global audience through electronic media has allowed him to spread the word in a powerful way — and left an indelible mark on the dioceses and parishes in which he has worked. At 83, after almost 58 years as a priest, he is now retired as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he worked with the late Cardinal William Levada and with Archbishop George Niederauer, and from which he ran an enormous web of parishes and schools, as well as fundraising and youth programs. He even has a new title: Monsignor.
Schlitt isn’t impressed. “Just call me Harry,” he says.
His boyish looks and charisma still intact, he lives in the rectory at St. Vincent de Paul in San Francisco, officiating at funerals and weddings, and often celebrating Mass (livestreamed on Facebook) for priests who are away, are sick, or need help with shut-ins, prison inmates and those in convalescent homes. And he is continuing his work as a broadcaster by celebrating a Sunday TV Mass that appears on San Francisco’s KTSF and KRON4 and on Schlitt’s website (fatherharry.org).
Recently, that work included a visit to one elderly couple in a care home who are watchers of the Mass, he confides, his eyes dancing with amusement. “When I arrived, the husband said, ‘Father, my wife is blind and deaf and I can’t hear much either, but we love your homilies.’” Schlitt also leads Sunday Mass to a full house at St. Vincent de Paul’s School for Boys in San Rafael. And he tapes a weekly podcast released on YouTube, The Pritch and the Padre, with comedian/actor/Catholic social worker Michael Pritchard, that is filled with banter and stories and a large helping of Christian virtues. Like kindness, which Schlitt seems to possess deep wells of. “Kindness is not something we see a lot of,” he says with a sigh.
To boot, Schlitt just published his second memoir, I’ll Never Know: The Rock & Roll Priest Looks at 80, a candid, humor-filled and moving look back on the last few years. In it, he laments efforts by the Catholic Church’s religious right (including local bishops) to undo both the papacy of Pope Francis and the recommendations of Vatican II, talks of his long career as a media personality and priest, expresses his deep regrets about not being able to have kids and grandkids, and celebrates that he can still play handball when his sciatica allows.
Schlitt also touches on the church’s sexual abuse scandals, which anger him, and decries the church’s judgmental stand on contraception, abortion and homosexuality. Of the latter he says, “No one comes in one day and says, ‘I’ve decided to be gay.’” And he scoffs at the unnecessary requirement of celibacy for the clergy, which he believes divides the priest from his people. Of marriage, he says wistfully, “It’s a joy I will never know.”
With a winsome and self-deprecating tone, the book is filled with teachable moments and is Schlitt’s tribute to the priesthood and its force for good in the modern world. “He’s different because he doesn’t have the normal barrier between priests and lay people,” says former San Francisco supervisor and attorney Angela Alioto. Once a month, she lunches with Schlitt, who helped her build La Porziuncola Nuova in North Beach, a scaled replica of the church Saint Francis rebuilt in Assisi, Italy, and a project that needed Schlitt’s permission to go forward. “He’s extremely warm and has become one of my closest friends,” adds Alioto. “There’s no arrogance. He’s Harry, and just plain wonderful.”
Even though he rubs shoulders with well-known people like Alioto and counts U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among his parishioners, Schlitt is equally comfortable with the man on the street. A while back he befriended Robert, a gambler and sometime drug dealer (who carried his cash in his boots) as they both headed for an Oakland A’s game. Schlitt helped Robert financially, and when Robert needed to get out of town pronto, saw him off at the airport.
“He’s loving and kind and nonjudgmental,” Pritchard says of Schlitt. “And he’s authentic. You can tell he doesn’t care about wealth and ostentation. A hot dog is good enough for him. He is the essence of Christ in his humanity, compassion and service, and he lifts the human spirit like no other priest I’ve seen.”
Raised in southern Missouri, Schlitt won a scholarship to a seminary in Rome, where he was ordained as a priest in 1964. Then it was back to Missouri to start a ministry that led him from teaching high school to the pulpit and thence to the airwaves in 1968 with his first deejay-while-a-priest gig for a top-40 show for teens. To engage the young people who listened, he spliced rock with Christian teachings, a modern kind of churchman that some in the Catholic Church weren’t happy about. (The teens loved him.)
From there, he went to work in radio and TV in Chicago, Las Vegas and San Francisco; on the Armed Forces Radio and Television network; and for the ABC radio network, a career during which he interviewed popular musicians like James Brown, Peggy Lee, The Temptations and San Francisco hometown favorite Journey. He could have been a media star if he hadn’t chosen a collar, but in choosing faith over fame he has stayed true to God, himself and his community, whoever may be in it.
“Father Harry is inspiring,” says Academy of Art University president Elisa Stephens, who has asked Schlitt to preside over the school’s graduation ceremonies since 2010. “He motivates the students and is approachable and of his time. A lot of priests don’t have that quality.”
Even though Schlitt has officially retired, it’s clear he’s showing few signs of a slowdown. He has, however, bought a condo in the North Bay where he can live out his life when he’s unable to serve the church any longer. And he has secured himself a spot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, right across from Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
“That’s as close to fame … as I will ever get,” he writes in his new book. “... Too bad I’ll be dead.”
With a heavy heart, the Nob Hill Gazette learned that Father Harry Schlitt passed away peacefully on Thanksgiving morning, just hours after this article went to press. We have left it as it was originally written to capture Harry’s authenticity, humor and lifetime of service. A vigil will be held on December 11 at 6 p.m. with a Mass on December 12 at 10 a.m., both at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
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